Prophecies of big, realigning political trends are perilous. Kevin Phillips’ classic 1969 work, The Emerging Republican Majority, was all but discarded after Watergate, the Nixon resignation and the 1974 Democratic landslide made its title (if not its analysis) look foolish. Similarly, The Emerging Democratic Majority, the mirror-image “sequel” to Phillips’ work from John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, had the misfortune of being published in 2002, when Republicans were on the brink of winning a rare midterm win for a presidential party and Karl Rove was popularizing his own theories of how Republicans could consolidate a stable majority. But just as Phillips seemed vindicated by the political trends of the eighties, Judis and Teixeira had their moment of prophetic celebrity in 2008, when the Democratic coalition they had projected appeared in full bloom in the form of Barack Obama.
Both books were large, complex essays that examined and projected trends more than they made predictions. But the titles, their publicists and the vast ranks of spinners and cheerleaders anxious to believe their “team” was destined to win (along with smaller tribes of Cassandras on the other team looking for a rationale for change) simplified and to some extent distorted their messages. So it was that when John Judis “recanted” his “prophecy” in a National Journal article a few weeks ago with the provocative (if carefully chosen) title “An Emerging Republican Advantage,” joy broke out all over the conservative chattering classes. One of the best and most honest of conservative analysts, however, Sean Trende of Real Clear Politics, who had been writing about the Judis/Teixeira hypothesis for years, noted that the book itself had never supported the myth of “demographic destiny” with which it was associated:
While the debates over demographics and future elections have become filled with triumphalist rhetoric about ascendant coalitions and Republicans potentially suffering a Whig-like extinction, these are the views of popularizers and partisans who have latched onto the book for their own purposes.
He might have added that the Judis/Teixeira hypothesis also became confused with the eternal argument in both parties between those wanting to focus national campaigns on “base mobilization” rather than swing voter persuasion: If the “base” is growing naturally without any special cultivation, all the messy compromises involved in growing the coalition via conversion may not be necessary (again, the opposite conclusion might be reached by Republicans looking at the same trends). This isn’t at all what Judis and Teixeira actually said.
Aside from inadvertently enabling Republicans to claim a phony victory over the straw man of demographic destiny, Judis’ “recantation” wasn’t much accepted by Democrats. His argument for a GOP “advantage,” based partially on a worrying trend he found among college-educated voters, and partially on anecdotal musings over the 2014 gubernatorial victory of Larry Hogan that so stunned Maryland Democrats like himself, drew a response from New York’s Jonathan Chait, relying in part on emailed advice from none other than Ruy Teixeira:
[T]he core insight of the emerging democratic majority thesis has held up remarkably well. And Judis does not actually refute it in any convincing way. He does not mention continuing Democratic strength among the fast-growing bloc of Latino voters. He does cite exit polling that showed Republicans splitting the Asian-American vote in 2014, a shocking finding that is almost certainly wrong. He does cite a Harvard poll of young voters, which appears to show weakening support for Democrats. But that poll has yielded unusual findings in comparison with other surveys. (The Harvard poll predicted a majority of young voters would vote for Republican House candidates in 2014; in reality, they voted Democratic at the same rate as in 2010.
Judis focuses on white middle-class voters, whom he sees as moving steadily toward the GOP. But the trend he cites begins with (depending on which example he uses) either 2006 or 2008, which were Democratic wave elections, a high point from which at least some regression both would be expected and would still allow a margin of error, given the massive Democratic sweep in both elections. Judis does not mention that Republicans need to ratchet up their share of the white vote continuously, or else dramatically improve their standing among nonwhites, merely to remain competitive.
Like Trende, though, Chait not only concedes but emphasizes one question about “majority” projections that has steadily become more relevant since 2002: a majority of what?
The [Democratic] party’s new base is heavily concentrated in urban areas, whose voting strength underrepresented in both the House and the Senate. Additionally, they are far more likely than core Republican voters to stay home during midterm elections. This has allowed the Republican Party to gain a near lock on holding the House, and a strong geographic advantage in holding the Senate. The Emerging Democratic Majority thus comes with the very important caveat that it applies only to one branch of government. (Likewise, Phillip’s Emerging Republican Majority coincided with a period of continuous Democratic control of the House.)
Indeed, Sean Trende argues that the true “Republican” advantage in the immediate future is that the GOP is more likely to win the White House than Democrats are to win Congress. But the deeper reality is that neither party commands anything like a stable majority, and the long-term Democratic advantage created by demographic trends is countered by a long-term Republican advantage created by the Founders’ decision to give every state two Senate seat and by the superior efficiency in distribution of Republican votes among House districts, reinforced by gerrymandering.
If American politics were a tennis game, we’d be in the final game of the final set, at “Deuce.”
Lead photo: Ernest Morales, Flickr Creative Commons
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog, Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist, and a Senior Fellow at theProgressive Policy Institute. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.